WASHINGTON — THE White House-Congress compromise for a ``kinder, gentler'' policy toward Nicaragua is a watershed event. By stressing diplomacy over military force, it formally recognizes a long-known fact: that the Reagan-era plan to use a guerrilla force to overthrow the ultra-leftist Sandinistas has not worked.
The new policy also represents, for the first time in more than 10 years, a rare level of bipartisan agreement on this most emotionally fraught of foreign policy issues. And it boosts the United States position in dealing with the Soviets over military aid to Nicaragua. Finally, it provides a solid success for the Bush administration, which has been accused of being slow off the mark.
Under the plan, announced Friday after four weeks of tough negotiations between Secretary of State James Baker III and congressional leaders, the US will support the Central Americans' own peace efforts while continuing to send ``humanitarian'' aid to the contras. Instead of trying to bring democracy to Nicaragua by force, the US will try to make the Sandinistas behave more democratically through the use of incentives and disincentives.
Next month, Congress will vote on a bill to renew humanitarian contra aid at current levels - $4.5 million a month - to last through Feb. 28, 1990, three days after Nicaragua is tentatively scheduled to hold presidential elections. The bill is expected to pass with little opposition.
In an unusual concession of power to Congress, President Bush has agreed that in order for contra aid to continue beyond Nov. 30, 1989, four congressional committees must write letters to the President clearing release of the aid. Secretary Baker had to grant this to win approval for the overall plan from House Democratic leaders, who felt a mechanism for reviewing the plan midway was necessary.
The plan was not welcomed in all quarters, however. C.Boyden Gray, the White House Counsel, was reported to have complained Saturday the he was not permitted to review the legal implications of the proposed agreement. Mr. Gray is worried the agreement may set a precedent permitting Congress to encroach on the President's ability to conduct foreign policy and spend allocated funds.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the new US policy is that it has moved closer to what the Central Americans have in mind for themselves. Early indications show an apparent willingness to do business with the US under this new framework.
``Though it [the new US policy] is not entirely consistent with Tesoro Beach, we can live with it and make it work,'' says a high-level Costa Rican official, contacted by telephone in Costa Rica. Tesoro Beach refers to the agreement reached Feb. 14 by the five Central American presidents calling for demobilization of the contras in exchange for democratic reforms in Nicaragua.
``The presidents wanted money devoted only to demobilization'' of the contras, the Costa Rican official says. ``Here you have an agreement that doesn't speak of demobilization - only of reintegration or regional relocation. So, the money is not for laying down arms or to relocate contras into the US.''
But, he says, ``we will find a way of implementing not only the administration's intentions, but our own intentions, too.''
Under the Tesoro Beach agreement, the five Central American presidents must draft a plan by May 14 for demobilization of the contras.
The Nicaraguan government reacted to the US plan with strong language against continued aid to the contras, but also made a conciliatory gesture.
``Nicaragua is willing to give the United States government the benefit of the doubt,'' a government communiqu'e said Friday.
The US will soon have two opportunities to show its good faith, the communiqu'e said. One will be to show quick and decisive support in the United Nations Security Council for a Central American plan instituting a peacekeeping force to monitor the region's borders. The other is for the US to support a plan to send observers from the UN and the Organization of American States immediately to Nicaragua to monitor the electoral process. The Nicaraguans have stated that they will proceed with their plan for early elections regardless of the new US plan.
The Nicaraguan communiqu'e complained about ``ambiguities and contradictions'' in the bipartisan US declaration. In fact, the US statement is vaguely worded. But that appears to have been the only way Baker could forge unity on such a polarized issue. Out of the same document, conservatives and liberals alike are able to find support for their points of view.
Conservatives tend to stress the fact that demobilization of the contras is to be voluntary, assuming that many anti-Sandinista fighters will not willingly give up the struggle until the country has undergone a major transformation. Some conservatives privately express confidence that the Sandinistas will not keep up their end of the bargain, justifying new military aid to the contras.
Liberals point to the bipartisan statement's support for the Central Americans' own peace initiatives, an element lacking during the Reagan years. Bush's own statement Friday demonstrated a sharp departure from Reagan's ``make them cry uncle'' approach to the Sandinistas.
``We do not claim the right to order the politics of Nicaragua,'' Bush said. ``That is for the Nicaraguan people to decide.''
Ultimately, the executive-legislative compromise amounts to little more than a gentleman's agreement.
``But in the end, what counts is not what's on a piece of paper, but what's in people's hearts,'' says Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, one of the last House Democratic leaders to come on board.
Whether this new unity can last remains to be seen. The administration has told the contras to put any military activity on hold, and has stated that it has no plan to renew military aid. But it has left open the possibility of a reactivated contra force, should conditions ``deteriorate substantially in Nicaragua,'' Baker says.
Liberals, for their part, are declaring that the contra war is over for good. They may well be right: The Sandinistas face such severe economic straits, it seems unlikely they would do something drastic enough to invite more war. And Congress has had enough of this issue.